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Brand positioning tip #2: the competitive frame of reference

In Brand Positioning Tip #1, we covered 2 of the 4 key elements of successful brand positioning done the way Dr. Kevin Keller taught me: points of parity and points of difference. Today, I’d like to highlight the third key element of good brand positioning– understanding your competitive frame of reference.


Competitive frame of reference is a fancy way of saying “the market you compete in.”

This sounds pretty simple, huh? It can be… If you run a furniture store, your competitive frame of reference would probably be the furniture market. If you run a tattoo parlor, your competitive frame of reference would probably be the tattoo market.

Those are pretty cut and dry cases. But have you ever stopped and wondered to yourself, “exactly what market am I competing in?” and realized that you are really competing in a market that is not initially obvious? Or that you are actually competing in multiple markets? If either of these situations are true, you may discover you need to create points of parity and points of difference for each market where you compete.

Here is an common example of a less-than-obvious competitive frame of reference.

What market do you think Starbucks is in? The coffee market? Maybe. In the coffee market, Starbucks competes with grocery stores, fast food restaurants, other coffee shops, and home brewers. Tough market… they aren’t competitive in the coffee market on price, there are probably options that (arguably) taste better, maybe have shorter lines. It’s hard to believe that Starbucks would have grown as big as they are by simply competing in the existing coffee market.

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New socialism? Naw, it’s the new individualism.

My friend Jeff Mackanic pointed me to this article from last month’s Wired Magazine where Kevin Kelly makes the assertion that there is a “new socialism” emerging in the form of large-scale collaboration projects online. He discusses contributions to Wikipedia, Flickr, even Red Hat’s own Fedora as examples of village-sized or greater online collective work.

In the context of my recent post regarding what Ayn Rand would think of open source, I think Kevin makes a leap where I might not follow him.The clue is right in the article:

…the leaders of the new socialism are extremely pragmatic. A survey of 2,784 open source developers explored their motivations. The most common was “to learn and develop new skills.” That’s practical. One academic put it this way (paraphrasing): The major reason for working on free stuff is to improve my own damn software. Basically, overt politics is not practical enough.

Where Kevin Kelly reaches the conclusion that contributors working together to “improve [their] own damn software” is a new form of socialism in action, I might take the view instead that this is a new form of individualism.

A form of individualism where people are free to pursue their own self interests, yet do so in such a way that they are still in harmony with those around them. The goal of open source developers is individual pursuit, as the paragraph above from the article makes clear… yet a byproduct of these individual pursuits is a collective good: better software, a better enyclopedia, etc.

If it was socialism, the collective good would be the end goal of everyone. But ultimately, the open source model is based on the individual working for the good of himself in harmony with others, not on being a mindless cog in a much bigger wheel.

But I’m no philosophy expert, what do you think?

Measuring dark matter? We’re working on it.

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while know it is based on the simple premise that there are some things out there in the world that are pretty difficult to see or measure, yet these same things can often be the stuff with the biggest impact. The intro to the blog tells the full story.

darkmatter1In the world of astronomy, two of these things are dark matter and dark energy. Both hard to see and measure.

In the world of business, three of these things are brand, culture, and community. Also tough to see and measure their impact in the business world.

So while we constantly explore ways to better understand the impact of brand, culture, and community here at Dark Matter Matters, the world of astronomy is trying to better understand exactly what the heck dark matter and dark energy are.

Thought it might be worth taking a short break from our regularly scheduled program to give an update on how the astronomers are doing.

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What would Ayn Rand think of open source? You can vote!

At the beach over the weekend, I read Anthem by Ayn Rand. Now before you write me off as the kind of guy that would go around telling people he reads Ayn Rand for fun, let me just say in my defense that this is really the first full Ayn Rand book I have read. ayn_randAnd it is only 105 pages long. Having read this, I’d totally read the CliffsNotes for The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged (which is like 1200 pages long).

Rand originally titled Anthem as “Ego” and you can definitely tell why. It is about a futuristic world where people are kinda back in the dark ages technologically-speaking, and live in a collective where people have numbers rather than names, are assigned jobs for life, and have forgotten the word “I” (yes, totally annoying… in the first ten chapters, the main character uses the royal “we” to refer to himself).

It seems like Ayn Rand has been back in the news lately, and I’ve seen her name bandied about in political arguments quite a bit, especially regarding healthcare reform. So it made me think, if Ayn Rand’s core philosophy was about maintaining the supremacy of the individual, what she calls “rational self-interest,” and she rejected the idea that the collective good should be put before the good of the individual, what would she think about the open source movement?

After all, I used to remember seeing stories with proprietary companies referring to open source as socialism all the time, although it doesn’t seem to happen as much these days. More and more of the biggest companies are embracing open source software and the concept of open source is more mainstream than ever.

So surely Ayn Rand would hate open source, right? Not so fast. Here are two good reasons why Ayn Rand might totally dig open source:

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Summer reading list for Dark Matter Matters

Ah, vacation… the time when the work shuts down for a few days and the Dark Matter Matters blog comes out of hibernation… 3 posts in 3 days!


A few months ago I wrote a post where I highlighted the top ten books behind Dark Matter Matters. In that post I promised to create a list of the books that didn’t make the top 10 cut, but are still pretty awesome.

So here, to celebrate the long holiday weekend, are some more books that have inspired Dark Matter Matters.

Books about how large-scale collaboration is pretty much the deal:

Wikinomics by Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams

The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki

The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Braffman and Rod Beckstrom

In the open source world, there’s a legendary quote attributed to Linus Torvalds (yes, he is the guy that Linux is named after) “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” The first two of these books are the extended dance remix of this quote. Each has a unique take, but both show how mass collaboration is changing everything about our society and the way we solve problems. The Starfish and the Spider is a interesting look at leaderless organizations and is a nice book for anyone trying to understand how the open source movement (and other leaderless organizations) work, and why open source is so hard to compete against. It is also a nice complement to the Mintzberg article I wrote about in my previous post.

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Rebuilding companies as communities


The brilliant Henry Mintzberg. I've got to meet this guy some day.

Holy smokes, Henry Mintzberg is at it again! The guy who predicted the economic collapse in 2006 (why is he not more famous, I don’t get it?) has an article in the July/August issue of the Harvard Business Review suggesting that the cultural framework of the corporation is completely broken.

And, according to Mintzberg,  the way to fix it is not by thinking like a corporation, but instead by thinking like a community. From the article:

Beneath the current economic crisis lies another crisis of far greater proportions: the depreciation in companies of community– people’s sense of belonging to and caring for something larger than themselves. Decades of short-term management, in the United States especially, have inflated the importance of CEOs and reduced others in the corporation to fungible commodities…

And it’s is a two way street… When a corporation treats its employees like simple assets to be hired and fired as the share price rises or falls, the employees treat the corporation like… a corporation.

The end result? Disengaged employees who don’t care about the business, and the business (and the shareholders) suffer for it. So for heaven’s sake, Henry, tell us how to fix it!

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Just in! A compelling vision for corporate America

In previous posts, I’ve talked about the need for setting a compelling vision for the corporation beyond just making money. Jim Collins writes about this concept extensively in Good to Great and Built to Last.

On June 26, we saw a wonderful example of one of the most respected CEOs in America, Jeffrey Immelt of GE, doing exactly that.

Steve Prokesch at Harvard Business Review gives some of the background in his blog:

A couple of weeks ago I met with GE’s CEO Jeff Immelt and we were talking about the financial meltdown, the deep recession, and what it would take to fix America. He was outspoken about how business and government had let down the American people and the need for radical change.

That’s fine, I said, but if he felt that way, why hadn’t he spoken up publicly? Immelt ran from the room and quickly returned with a speech he was working on–one he delivered last week at the Detroit Economic Club. This was his speech and not something he had fobbed off to a speechwriter, he told me.

After reading this post, I went and watched the speech, which will take you about 25 minutes of your life.

I was blown away. In this very traditional corporate luncheon setting, glasses and sliverware clinking, video cutaways to bored-looking attendees trying to remember where their 1 o’clock meeting is supposed to be, Immelt presented a deeply personal vision for recreating America, and his company in the process.

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The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Building Successful Brands in a Digital World

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